World coal production and consumption data for 2011 are not yet compiled and published, but one key number is in. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology reports that the country’s coal output rose 8.7 percent from 2010 to reach 3.88 billion short tons last year. For comparison, US consumption in 2010 was just over 1 billion tons—and holding steady (mostly due to cheap natural gas prices). If the current trend continues, China will burn well over 4 billion tons of coal in 2012, four times as much as the US.
Asia-Pacific coal consumption dwarfed that of the rest of the world last year, accounting for about 70 percent of total world coal consumption, assuming a continuation of the 9.1 percent growth seen from 2009 to 2010. Asia-Pacific coal output has doubled, and doubled again (a 400 percent increase) since 1980.
China alone is now responsible for just about half of the world’s coal consumption, which amounts to nearly 8 billion short tons.
Chinese greenhouse gas emissions totaled 8.24 billion metric tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2010; the 2011 figure will likely clock in at over 8.8 billion tonnes. The US racked up 5.5 billion metric tonnes of emissions in 2010, out of a world total of 33.5 billion tonnes.
The US still ranks first in terms of per capita emissions among the big economies, with 18 metric tonnes emitted per person; China emits under 6 tonnes per person, while the world average stands at 4.49 tonnes per person.
Two questions beg discussion:
First, when and how will China’s coal consumption stop growing? Given that current consumption rates are off the charts when compared to forecasts being issued just a few years ago, and that production problems (due to increasing mine depths and transport bottlenecks) are becoming more common, will consumption hit a sharp peak and decline rapidly—perhaps within the next few years? The country is reorganizing its mining industry and building new rail lines; over the short term, this could alleviate some of the supply pressures that caused Beijing to become a net coal importer in 2009. However, exponential rates of growth never continue for long on this finite planet of ours. At seven percent annual growth, China’s coal output would double every 10 years; is even one more doubling even remotely possible? What will be the economic consequences for China when production finally does top out?
Second, can the world save itself from a climate apocalypse unless China leads the way? Talk of “climate justice” (which emphasizes the higher per-capita emissions of wealthy nations) is all well and good, but the harsh reality is that even drastic emissions cuts by the US will mean relatively little unless China also cuts soon and fast. So far, indications are that Beijing is keeping the carbon pedal to the metal, despite concurrent efforts to become a world leader in renewable energy. Barring a dramatic global emissions policy breakthrough, resource limits and economic contraction seem to offer the main hope for keeping climate change to merely “catastrophic” levels.